Last fall, I got around to watching Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. A friend recommended it based on my interests in female pop musicians and music video. Well, he didn’t recommend it. He predicted (correctly) that I would hate it. But he thought I might be able to make use out of it. For a little while, I thought about writing a term paper on it for my film score class. But then I watched the thing and decided that expanding my existent work on Kelly Reichardt’s use of sound and music would be the kinder, gentler option. I’m all about self-care. Final papers, grading, season affective disorder, and multiple Sucker Punch screenings would take their toll on even the steeliest individuals.
Is Sucker Punch that bad? Yes, particularly because it fails to live up to its potential. Snyder intended for his cinematic period comic about 60s-era female mental asylum patients to be a self-reflexive critique against fanboy culture’s leering, dehumanizing sexism. That may be true, but the critique gets lost in the execution. Babydoll (Emily Browning) is a survivor of family abuse who is put in an institution by her own stepfather after she accidentally kills her sister. To escape her present living condition, an impending lobotomy, and basically everything that’s ever happened to her, she uses fantasy as a retreat.
Unfortunately, Babydoll can only imagine herself as a sex slave, showgirl, or video game avatar. This is evidence of a damaged mind and the handiwork of self-reflexive fanboy screenwriters. Granted, all of Babydoll’s fantasies are about escape and vengeance, with a brothel pimp (Oscar Isaac) and madam (Carla Gugino) standing in for her stepfather, an orderly (Issac), and her psychiatrist (Gugino). Furthermore, Babydoll assembles a team of showgirls/patients (played by Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung) in order to enact collective revenge against their captors. This could be an attempt at female solidarity, though its potential is undercut by the presence of double agents within the ranks. The film does acknowledge that many survivors blame themselves and protect their abusers, as represented by the storyline for sisters Sweet Pea (Cornish) and Rocket (Malone). I suppose it would be disingenuous of the film to have Babydoll escape a lobotomy that assuredly would be performed on her in a mid-century mental institution. But even Babydoll’s fantasies seem constrictive, particularly because Babydoll and her co-hort’s bodies are diminished by music video objectification and CGI wizardry.
Where I find Sucker Punch especially hard to take is its use of pop music. Reflecting the (barely drawn) ensemble of female archetypes in the film’s main cast, the soundtrack is mainly comprised of well-known anthems and classic tracks by “empowered” female artists. Suspending any critique of historical accuracy—an argument I have little interest in with regard to period films if the music works—what troubles me is how the music is clearly supposed to aurally represent some notion of girl power. Björk, Annie Lennox, and Alison Mosshart are tough, resilient, iconic women who represent freedom, escape, and strength to many of their fans. But the film’s use of their music is as confusing as it is calculated. Having Browning cover “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is one thing. Having it play over the film’s opening montage of Babydoll’s institutionalization following her sister’s death is awful. Using Björk’s “Army of Me” in a scene where Babydoll kills a supernatural foe is meant to be empowering but feels hollow. The same could be said of the girls’ final showdown to Mosshart’s cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Nothing about Sucker Punch feels victorious, no matter how many girls you put on screen or in the soundtrack. For one, I can’t imagine girls kicking that much ass while wearing stilettos and skimpy leotards (live-action Aeon Flux couldn’t do it). For another, I hate that actresses are required to look normatively sexy while kicking ass (at least Michelle Rodriguez didn’t wear heels in Machete). In her mind, Babydoll is a post-classic Hollywood Salome. But we never see Babydoll perform. Assuredly this is intentional. I seem to remember hearing that an alternate version of the film features Browning’s dancing, which left little to the imagination. Maybe this prevents us from objectifying her further. But I’d still like to see her claim ownership of her voice and body in those scenes. Unfortunately Babydoll and her girls are never people; this undercuts the film’s supposedly feminist intentions.
Snyder’s invocation of riot grrrl/girl power feminism resembles producer Max Martin’s deployment of feminist girl punk. Ann Powers observes that Martin harnesses the subgenre’s rebellious energy for anthems by artists like Avril Lavigne, P!nk, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift. Linking Martin’s collaborations to the recent political mistreatment of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Powers concludes:
The complex and still unfolding story of the Russian collective can’t be summarized in a short essay, much less a paragraph. But it’s worth contemplating Swift’s latest move, not only because it’s so powerful, but because it demonstrates how consequential a serious act of talking back can be. Punk is a great flavor enhancer, and in small doses, it adds a kick to pop. Take it straight, however, and you could be utterly changed.
I recognize all of this results from (and predates) riot grrrl’s mainstream co-optation. Such appropriation is bound up in the politics of power and consent. These issues are Sucker Punch’s (disjointed, unformed) thematic center. And the stakes are high, both on- and off-screen. The politics of power and consent shape science and the prison industrial complex, both of which are regulated by government and corporate interests. When confronted with difference, these institutions often take power away from patients and prisoners. How else can we explain the mistreatment of people like Sara Kruzan and CeCe McDonald, since it can’t be justified? How else do elected officials like Todd Akin and Jan Brewer get to subjugate women and girls’ bodies with their hate speech and dangerously applied legislative authority?
Powers notes that punk is about community rather than the individualist bent of many of Martin’s confections. Totally. For me, punk is all about struggle and resistance outside of and within those communities. It’s about the transformative potential of making do and speaking to (and spitting at) power. It’s about rebelling against society’s imposition on its own citizenry. It’s also about rebelling against three-chord song structure and mosh pit misogyny.
I also recognize that when it comes to popular culture and art, feminist critics should be cautious about being proscriptive. Perhaps Sucker Punch and texts like it are empowering to people. Jessica Hopper advises against dismissing Taylor Swift’s radical potential for young girls, something I’ve always tried to do as a Girls Rock Camp instructor despite my well-documented, self-reflexive antipathy toward her. So I don’t want to take that potential away from anyone. But I personally can’t abide what I perceive to be the film’s disempowering political message. The stakes are too high.
Last month, Ann Powers celebrated Madonna’s 53rd birthday by collecting her 53 favorite songs from the Material Girl. She posted suggestions on Twitter and I provided my picks along with several others. This went live shortly after Ellen Copperfield’s musings on Madge for This Recording and preceded Carilynn27′s Persephone post that twined Madonna’s music with autobiography and fandom. It also follows a sustained narrative of (predominantly white) women (and girls) taking about, listening to, and playing with Madonna. Lots of media studies criticism in the late 80s and into the 90s sought to understand Madonna as screen subject, fan object, and feminist star text. All of the stuff that will be written about Gaga will have to be built upon this body of work.
I came of age during this time, and remember listening to Madonna with my mother, a fan who didn’t think that allowing me to watch the video for “Like a Prayer” would make me a Satanist. Actually, it clued me in on Madonna being something of a racial fetishist. I also developed my nascent Madonna fandom during my pubescent years through my stepmother. I was fascinated by her outspoken love for Madonna, especially since it seemed so closely tied to adult sexual expression. As a ten-year-old girl, coming across a copy of Erotica was better than any of the Updike or Nin I snuck off my dad’s bookshelf at night. You can’t dance to Rabbit, Run. I also purloined my stepmom’s copy of Sex, which she tucked into the back of her closet.
Erotica was well-received critically, though underrated. Some thought Madonna ran out of ideas, or was just trying to shock people, or simply wasn’t sexy. A few critics claimed Erotica was too cold and calculated to be sexy. I think they miss the point–mediating an image of sexiness usually takes the sex out of it because sexuality tends to operate (and be obfuscated) at a subliminal level. Openly subverting expectations of feminine sexiness and reconfiguring what signifies as sexy for women causes a lot of discomfort. Power is an aphrodisiac, as long as it isn’t actually wielded by women. Many of the scenarios in the “Erotica” video are trite and regressive–lipstick lesbianism, celebrity friends, S&M, problematic assumptions about black sexuality. But I can’t imagine many contemporary pop stars exploring erotic menace or foregrounding explicitly queer images of sexuality in a mainstream context as Madonna did with Erotica, which was released during a time when AIDS casualties and HIV prevention were more greatly emphasized. Plus the album has “Rain” and “Bye Bye Baby,” which are two of my favorite songs. It also has “Did You Do It?,” which, as with all song where Madge raps, you should skip.
Gaga may come the closest to fulfilling Erotica‘s potential. There’s no question that Jo Calderone owes hir existence to Ralph Macchio, Annie Lennox, Andrew Dice Clay, Danny Zuko, and Lenny Bruce. But what I appreciated about Gaga’s drag performance at the VMAs was her commitment to it. She didn’t make any costume changes during the night to re-establish her femininity. She kept her breasts bound throughout the ceremony and didn’t wink at the camera. Sure, she was boorish for trying to kiss Britney, whose trembling bottom lip seemed to simultaneously telegraph “Is this a trick?”, “Should I?”, and “I don’t think my manager will approve.” But if you compare Gaga’s performance alongside Katy Perry’s egotistical assumption that a song like “Firework,” which vaguely addresses queer closeted identity by celebrating individual perseverance, is doing something good for the world when it merely aligns herself with a lucrative niche market, Gaga might be moving closer toward pop progress. But I hate “Born This Way” as both a pop song and a political message, so I’m actually hoping Janelle Monáe brings the sex and politics back to pop music. Androids need love too.
But if we’re talking about pop music’s ability to inspire exciting sex, I can’t discredit an album I like a great deal more than Erotica. Sade’s Love Deluxe slunk into American record stores on October 20, 1992, the same day that Madonna’s fifth album initiated controversy. Janet Jackson’s janet. came out the following spring and is more potently erotic than Madonna’s offering, but I think that album requires its own post and a review of Poetic Justice. While many contemporaries sought reinvention to stay relevant, Nigerian British torch singer Sade Adu and her band continue to release reliably warm, enveloping jazz-pop for quiet storms, yacht rides, and power outages. I bought Love Deluxe on tape in junior high as a compromise. I wanted to see Indecent Proposal but my parents were like, “Ummmmm, absolutely not!” “No Ordinary Love” featured prominently in the trailer, so it sufficed until I finally saw Adrian Lyne’s sexist glamorization of kept women and poor business decisions at a girlfriend’s house. The scene in the kitchen is pretty hot, though. But “Kiss of Life,” “Cherish the Day,” and “I Couldn’t Love You More” are way hotter.
I don’t want to set up a racist, misogynistic binary wherein white female pop stars are cold sexbots and female pop stars of color have erotic energy coursing through their veins. Nor do I want to overlook that Sade’s songs assume heterosexual coupling. But Sade’s articulation of sexuality is predicated on the assumption that these forms of expression are something people do together. Also, sexuality isn’t the only lens through which Sade explores empathy and human connection. Despite the luxe atmosphere Sade’s music often seems to cultivate, many of her songs focus on poverty and the struggle for basic survival. Two such songs on Love Deluxe are “King of Pain” and “Pearls.” The latter track, which is about a poor Somalian woman, always makes me tear up a little. It may be a bit paternalistic in its storytelling, but it’s no less effective.
Thus, I think Sade’s articulation of the erotic is at least as powerful and enduring. Others seem to agree. Molly Lambert recently saw Sade in concert and raved about the performance, Sade’s enduring sexiness, and the sense of community the event created. Ms. Adu turns 53 next January. Let’s remember to wish her a happy birthday.
Destroyer’s Kaputt came out last Tuesday. As a longtime fan of Dan Bejar’s main project, I’ve been pretty taken with it since tracks started filtering out late last year. My line about Destroyer is that it’s what English majors should be listening to instead of the Decemberists. That’s as much a glib comparison as it is a cheap shot against a band I actively dislike, especially since they have very little in common besides being led by a nasal-voiced front man with a love for big words. I will allow, however, that I’ve never understood the point of Colin Meloy’s lyrics. To my ears, it exists for its own sake and since I maintain that Meloy rivals Jay Leno as the public figure in possession of the most punchable jaw, I’ll interpret that sake as personal edification. Bejar could be accused of similar things, though his elliptical lyrics and prismatic compositions transfix me. Notice how vast “Rubies” is in its first half, only to drop into disarming intimacy. A symphony folds into a four-track recording. Staggering.
I’m interested in Bejar’s artistic evolution, particularly after Your Blues. Derided in some circles as “the MIDI album”–a reference to the antiquated musical interface used to provide much of the album’s background music–many found this stylistic departure from his guitar-based compositions disconcerting. The rockist panic informing such aversion is pretty funny to me. Your Blues ranks among my favorite Destroyer records and warrants rediscovery. It’s clear with subsequent releases that while he may not have been using successive albums to respond to previous ones, he was building on certain ideas. Your Blues hardly sounds like a departure in context. The most reductive connection between Your Blues and Kaputt is that he’s channeling another outdated era of pop music production–one Mark Richardson places between 1977 and 1984, at the height of soft rock, smooth jazz, and new romantic pop. But Bejar’s always been interested in toying with outre musical ideas. Destroyer’s shimmering guitar lines recall 70s AOR staples like Bread and America, so his attempts at something we might call ambient yacht rock shouldn’t come as any surprise. Also, as an Electronic fan, I’m tickled that the New Order/Pet Shop Boys/Smiths’ side project is one of the album’s main musical reference points.
But what does come as something of a (pleasant) surprise to me is artist Kara Walker‘s presence on Kaputt. I had the privilege of seeing her My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love exhibit in 2008 at the Modern in Fort Worth. It remains my most disquieting spectatorial experience. Walker is best known for recasting Antebellum-era silhouette cutouts in cinematic tableaux to reinterpret America’s ongoing racist history (she also gets a shout-out in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic”). Nightmarish visions of sexual violence and abjection twine with surrealist and sensual imagery that sneak up on you once you look past cultural associations with silhouette portraiture’s feminized gentility. That I saw this after looking at an Impressionist exhibit–and walking through the gift shop–at the nearby Kimbell Museum only put the vitality of the exhibit in sharper relief. There’s no way one of her murals could make it onto an umbrella.
Perhaps related to serving as a curator for Merge Records’ retrospective, Walker contributed lyrics to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” so named as a reference to the proto-punk duo. She wrote several charged phrases onto cue cards and Bejar sang them, rearranging and embellishing some passages. It’s easily my favorite song on the record, though I’m disquieted as to why. Ann Powers recently offered some insights into their collaborative effort, noting their shared interest in appropriation. Bejar has been compared to Leonard Cohen, particularly his detached narration of hedonistic tales. Soft rock’s seductive qualities–the backlit production, the reliance on 7th chords–disquiet in their efforts to soothe and drip sophistication, especially when Bejar whispers lines like “New York City just wants to see you naked and they will,” “wise, old, black, and dead in the snow,” “All that slender-wristed, white, translucent business passes for love these days,” and “Don’t talk about the South, she said.” Kaputt also prominently features vocalist Sibel Thrasher. In the context of this song, her presence calls into question the role many black female vocalists held as background singers for artists like Simply Red.
Cohen also comes to mind when we talk about reinterpretation. Many folks who’ve heard “Hallelujah” might attribute Jeff Buckley, but the song originated with Cohen (actually, Buckley’s version is a cover of a cover, as he cribbed John Cale’s reading of it). So what happens when lyrics are drafted by an African American woman whose words are then reinterpreted by a white Canadian man frolicking in the studio? Who does it belong to? Frankly, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to rule that it belongs to both of them and to the listener. What I know for certain is that this song is stuck on repeat.
Let me start this post by making it be about me, so that I can then make it be about somebody else. Last week, my writing kind of took a hit. I’m confident that my work is strong enough to take criticism. I’m also pretty lucky to have a supportive readership and not tangle too often with commenter vituperation the way so many other smart bloggers I know contend with on a regular basis. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t annoyed by charges against indulgent rhetoric that’s love-drunk on GRE words. It’s not inaccurate, but it seems sexist to knock a woman for using big words or bridge tenuous connections, especially one who grew up reading the work of music critics like Ann Powers. But folks hate on Joanna Newsom for throwing around words like “etiolated” in a song. But have you rolled that word around in your mouth? It’s kind of awesome.
I don’t mean to compare my prose to Newsom’s verse. Likewise, I don’t mean to suggest I’m in the same room as Throwing Muses founder Kristin Hersh, who is a queen of challenging song form. I just get where they’re coming from. It’s clumsy work to stumble into an elegant sentence. It’s embarrassing to write your feelings down and pass them over to someone else. It’s also liberating when you surprise yourself and tap into something unexpected and true. And as beloved as Hersh’s band was in the early offing, boy did she get shit for bending words. Witness Robert Christgau’s dismissal of her work as bad poetry.
Her elliptical flourishes are all over Rat Girl, an adaptation of her diary from age 18. It was a big year for her. She became friends with super-fan Betty Hutton, who she met while taking college courses. Her band (which she co-founded with stepsister Tanya Donelly) got signed to British underground powerhouse 4AD, then the first American band to hold the distinction. She also battled with bipolar disorder. I dealt with depression at 18 basically by retreating further under the covers to block out all the light that could seep into my pitch-black bedroom. She gave up lithium after becoming pregnant, confronting audiences, video directors, and producers with her pregnant belly.
Rat Girl is kind of hard to pin down for a review and I’m having trouble finding fault with it. I recommend Marisa Meltzer’s Slate write-up, which I linked in a previous post. Anyone familiar with Hersh’s rudderless songs can imagine that linear storytelling is not her thing. Yet I think this memoir gets closest inside the protagonist’s head, expanding and contracting as her mind ambles past the thoughts in her head with the actions that transpire between 1985 and 1986. I realize that drafting a list to break down what I liked about an autobiography as elliptical as Rat Girl doesn’t honor its spirit, but here goes.
1. Hersh’s candor toward her internal feelings about mental illness is astounding. Especially when she talks about not being able to see people like Hutton because she doesn’t want to burden her with her problems. Her empathic writing recalls Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ariel. Yet I like that she’s always trying to shake off the black cloud hanging over her head or use it productively to her advantage. There’s claustrophobia, but she also acknowledges how time, setting, circumstance, and people allow a person’s perspective to shift and expand.
2. Since Hutton eventually calls Hersh out on going MIA after a particularly harrowing bout of depression, I’ll use this as a transition to say that I really like their kinship. They don’t seem to have much in common. Hutton often gives Hersh advice on stardom and glamour that her young charge doesn’t want to take, in part because she suspects such tips destroyed her mentor when she was a celebrity. Yet they get each other’s oddities on a fundamental level. 4AD co-founder Ivo Watts Russell connects with Hersh on a similar level. I appreciate that Hersh’s internal universe is conscious of this. Recognizing that some people really love you and are capable of staggering generosity is sometimes the one thing that lifts you out of your brain’s darkest depths.
3. Betty Hutton attending a Throwing Muses concert with gold hair and a priest as her plus one? Amen.
3A. An early Throwing Muses show sounds epic. Their stage set-up included lights, projections, and a TV monitor blaring static with mannequin legs growing out from under it. If only I weren’t 2 in Houston and was 18 in Providence. I also wish I could have helped defend them against sexist, lazy sound guys but they held their own.
4. The Throwing Muses were a group of smart, considerate kids. When confronted with the news that Hersh is pregnant, they figure out how to play quietly so as not to disturb that baby and makes sure its mom gets plenty of rest. Disbanding is never an option because they’re committed to what they’re doing. I’m pretty sure most bands would have kicked Hersh out of the group she co-founded.
4A. Hersh loves how being pregnant makes her feel like a superhero. Likewise, her band mates are fascinated by it.
4B. It’s not commented upon, but my guitar instructor pointed out that they must have had tons of support from their parents. Gigging steadily and getting signed when you’re 18? Some older person cares, financially or otherwise.
4C. Hersh never really discusses her blended family with stepsister Donelly–only the one she formed with her, drummer Dave Narcizo, and bassist Leslie Langston. But I like the glimpses into their acquired sisterhood, like when New Englander Donelly corrects Atlantean transplant Hersh on the correct pronunciation of “thing” and tries to remove “ya’ll” from her vocabulary. Hersh’s defense of the offending second person plural term makes this Southern girl nod with approval.
5. I learned about the universal couch, which you can find in any venue. It’s something of a home for the band when they’re alone and a prison when they’re strapped to it by music journalists chasing the buzz while missing the point. Their line of questioning is often so wrong-headed and I love how Hersh and the Muses play around with them, especially when they make assumptions about Hersh’s feminist politics. I also love when Hersh says that she’s missing so much great, original music from the bands they’re touring with by being subjected to pointless interviews.
6. It’s never revealed who the father of her child is, nor does Hersh discuss what it was like to pick up the guitar at 14. They’re just facts. Hersh seems to have evolved past both of them. While I wanted to know more about how Hersh learned to master her instrument as someone almost a year into playing my Epiphone, I’m glad she bypassed the conventional narrative of a girl becoming self-actualized by her guitar. At 18, this was probably the farthest thing from her mind. Plus, rock journalists seem to be reminding her enough how exceptional it is to be a woman who plays electric guitar that she probably wanted to bury any recollection of the initial clumsiness that comes from developing the muscle memory to play scales, chords, and strumming patterns.
7. I love how she veers into tangents and mental in-roads about the nausea induced by the sight of greasy donuts or the thrill from swimming in violent, cold water or the exact color of a chord or the power of pausing to look at Christmas lights or how her band is like spinach or whatever else runs through her brain. Her (ugh) musings seem (ugh ugh) thrown together and edge toward hippie wisdom possibly inherited by her bohemian parents, except they’re often brave and profound. Again, the one thing I hope people take away from this book is what a great writer Hersh is. Some of the sentences she puts together absolutely floor me.
I know that Hersh’s book will be met with resistance. Some may think it’s just one structureless yarn from a talented white girl who’s making herself crazy. But I think her decision to write herself out of depression and soldier into her twenties with a band and a kid on her terms is pretty admirable. I believe the complicated ways in which she expresses and documents this exhilarating time is honest. I think she nails how time passes in life — that nothing seems to happen until everything transpires at once. For anyone who thinks they may relate to this great skein of an autobiography, I highly recommend it.
Okay, so M.I.A.’s divisive third album, /\/\/\Y/\, has been out since early July. Its official release was on the 13th, though she “leaked” it on her MySpace page earlier in the month. Of course, the release of lead single “XXXO” and the music video for “Born Free” ramped up anticipation, as did her sound-bite shit-talk toward Interscope label mate Lady Gaga.
Pitch escalated when Lynn Hirschberg’s scandalous New York Times profile damaged the M.I.A.’s profile, prompting folks to provide advice for how to put her suddenly waning career back on track. Back in 2007, M.I.A., LCD Soundsystem, and Panda Bear topped many critics’ best-of lists (and dazzled this moi) with albums that expanded the studio boundaries of fringe-audience pop music. All of these artists release follow-ups this year. James Murphy has made it through his most recent foray relatively unscathed. I imagine that Panda Bear’s Tomboy will be kid-gloved as a musical evolution while M.I.A.’s self-titled /\/\/\Y/\ will be framed as a manic detour. How’s that for sexism?
I’ll admit some bias. I’ve been an M.I.A. fan since I saw two girlfriends execute the “Galang” dance with perfect synchronicity at a college party. Her first two albums rank amongst my favorites of the decade, though I’m always aware of how middle-class and white I am when I pump “Paper Planes” in my Mazda 626. But for me, there aren’t that many female artists at the level of fame she’s achieved who consistently relish in having pop culture ram against political insurrection. As Jessica Hopper put it in her review, she makes pop for capitalist pigs.
But I’ve also been critical of M.I.A. She was the subject of the first presentation I gave at a national conference. At the 2008 PCA/ACA conference, I proposed that her deliberate use of b-girl fashion projected a subversive racialized femininity. Predictably, this resulted in the Sri Lankan refugee turning outdated, second-hand designs into a hot commodity once she reached a certain level of fame, making her a hipster icon for designers like Marc Jacobs and retailers like American Apparel and Converse. Unfortunately, the current backlash was bound to happen.
Some folks wrote incisive commentary on Hirschberg’s article, evident in LaToya Peterson’s Jezebel article and Sady Doyle’s Tiger Beatdown piece. Unfortunately, the piece irrevocably skewed the reception of M.I.A.’s new album, forcing buried tensions to surface around the actual political merit of her artistic contributions that previously went unquestioned. Thanks to this article, many critics now seem to think she’s crazy, phony, constructed, and untalented (though unable to admit that they’ve been had, as Arular and Kala were almost unanimously praised). Much of this criticism seems short-sighted and blind to how popular opinion is engineered. Apart from explicit references to Hirschberg’s profile, its influence is particularly evident in the annoying ubiquity of the term “agit-prop,” which has lost all meaning for me.
So now that the album has been out for a few weeks and writers don’t have to play hand pile with Twitter, how about we calm down? M.I.A.’s third album is not that bad. Actually, it’s pretty good. More to the point, it’s remarkably consistent with her previous offerings, leading me to wonder why folks are just now getting annoyed with her tendency toward mock-incendiary sloganeering and posturing. Let’s put things in perspective, shall we?
Oh and let’s also get truffle oil French fries out of our minds as a symbol of her waning credibility. Like it’s hard to find a basket of those in Los Angeles. Matter of fact, I remember sharing a pizza topped with truffle “essence” at the Brick Oven before a Gravy Train!!!! show a few summers back. I was doing some contract voice-over work at the time, which wasn’t especially lucrative but could afford me to go in on a $10 pie. Also, I find Maya and fiancé/Seagram heir Ben Brewer’s decision to turn a Brentwood mansion into a squat for their friends a far more interesting application of wealth, perhaps more clearly indicating the couple’s political values.
If I rated things on a scale of 10, I’d give /\/\/\Y/\ a 7. It retains much of her signature while loosening its grip periodically to incorporate dub and industrial’s influence into her sound. It meanders a bit and lags toward the end in a free associative haze, not unlike fellow pop iconoclast and mother Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two. For me, its tangential feel simulates the non-linear nature of online interaction that’s foregrounded in the album art as well as the typing sounds and the mantra that comprise opening track “The Message”.
As an album, /\/\/\Y/\ doesn’t pack the immediate wallop of her first two albums — particularly the breakthrough Kala, which made her a household name and also guaranteed that she’d disappoint people after her Grammy performance, involvement with Slumdog Millionaire, and musical cameos in movie trailers.
However, I’d put the compressed energy of “Steppin’ Up,” “Born Free,” and “Meds and Feds” up there with “Bird Flu.” I also like the contrast with smoother numbers like “It Takes a Muscle,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Space.” I side with Ann Powers’s reading of “XXXO” as a statement about the problematic nature of constructing a pop star and a commentary about M.I.A.’s assumed role as a producer’s muse. I’m fine with the pro-weed chorus to “Teqkilla,” as it plays like a commentary on the post-ironic hipster inanity of a Nylon party that’s honoring her. And if Mark Richardson believes the lyric about Googling yourself in Discovery’s “Orange Shirt” captures “the low-level digitally assisted narcissism of the current age,” I wonder what he makes of M.I.A.’s line in “It Iz What It Iz” about having discussions with her partner while playing Wii.
Part of what prevented me from writing this piece earlier is the inability to reconcile her status as international pop star with her national heritage and cultural origins. Recently, I was having a sloshy party conversation with my friends Alex and Jessalynn about this problem. They proposed that M.I.A. has mythologized her family’s move from war-torn Sri Lanka to London to the point of distortion. They were skeptical of how she got to London, noting that her family must have some connections gained through privilege that the pop star is obscuring to lend credibility to the marginal cultural position she’s defined for herself. Fair point, because while London has a considerable immigrant population, I do wonder what educational programs were offered to a South London teenager that granted her enrollment at St. Martin’s College. I am also troubled by how a pop star is expected to speak on behalf of her home country’s systemic oppression, particularly as she grows more distant from its citizenry while exploiting a telegraphed representation of her heritage for profit.
Yet I find these set of issues especially interesting, particularly as many of our contemporary female pop stars make interchangeable hits about partying in appropriated pan-Native American couture or cupcake bras. I’ll take M.I.A.’s recent Late Show performance of “Born Free” over any of this nonsense. There may not have been gun shots to censor this time, but the army of M.I.A. avatars bested Eminem’s VMA performance of “The Real Slim Shady” and Suicide’s Martin Rev bleating out the sampled riff to “Ghost Rider” created televisual drama. M.I.A. might be a frustrating pop cultural figure and a guaranteed sell-out, but she’s far from boring.